This Land Is My Land

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The tape goes on to describe other incidents Berry observed on her property. Her electricity was shut off once. Another time the gas was turned off. To Berry, these were attacks. To a stranger, they sound like everyday mishaps. Monning doesn't have firsthand knowledge about any of those incidents, and he is hesitant to jump to conclusions about who may have been behind them--just as he is hesitant to cast judgment on Berry's version of events.

"It's hard for me to imagine what she thinks--the fears and concerns that a person who grew up in segregation would have," says Monning, who is white and who, like Berry, lives outside of town. "When my cows are gone I think, 'Oh, gee, I have to fix my fence.' Murdine would think someone stole the cows."

As it happens, someone may have recently stolen some cows Berry was keeping on the land, according to Dallas County criminal court records. In March 2000, Berry reported that several cows had gone missing. Police later arrested her neighbor Vincent Offord, a convicted felon with a history of nabbing livestock, in connection with the case. Offord is scheduled to stand trial next month on a felony charge of livestock theft.

When told about the trial date, Berry chuckles. She had forgotten all about calling the police, having assumed they didn't take her call seriously. She is more concerned about a fence, which divides the back of her property from another neighbor, whom she believes has moved the fence onto her land. The fence is like a time warp that sends Berry's thoughts reeling backward in time, right to the day she and Uncle Dee took their walk.

There at the kitchen table, Berry turns her face to the side to conceal her eyes and begins thumping her walking cane on the linoleum, as if the rubber thuds will somehow stop the tears from flowing.

"God dawg, I don't know why I get like that. You're gonna have to forgive me. I've worked on this for so long," Berry says. "I promised him I would keep the land, just like I kept it all those years. It hurts me because I'm trying, but it seems that I can't keep the promise."

Back out on the farm, a motley crew of yard dogs has staggered over to join Berry on her tour of the grounds.

"You're gonna say I'm crazy," Berry cautions, realizing this isn't the first time she's tried to convince someone that the fence has mysteriously moved. "That fence there, they picked it up and brought it this way."

It does sound crazy. That old wire fence--rusted and tangled in the underbrush--looks as though it has been there forever. Especially in contrast to the neighbor's electric fence, which looks brand-new. The new fence runs the length of the property's dividing line, carrying with it a silent current intended to keep the horse from getting out. Of course, it's also pretty effective at keeping Berry from getting in.

Last year, Berry sent a certified letter to the property owner, advising him to keep his fence off her property. Evidently, the owner's tenants had erected another fence somewhere on what Berry says is her property. Berry had that fence torn down. The owner wrote Berry back, telling her to stop tearing down his fences and advising her to leave his tenants alone. For now, the two parties have reached a quiet stalemate.

By the time Berry turns the Jeep back home, a stranger has joined her two hired hands. Berry narrows her eyes at him and wonders aloud what he wants. She slowly unrolls her window as she approaches the man, who steps up to the Jeep and asks her if she knows who owns this land. Straight-faced and serious, the man says he's interested in buying some acres. Berry says she doesn't know anything and speeds off, leaving a dust storm in her wake.

"He's lying," she says, scowling at the man's image in her rearview mirror.

Berry reaches the edge of her property and turns the Jeep around, letting it idle for a moment. Her suspicions are on red alert. After a moment, she drives back toward the man. This time when she approaches, the man has a huge smile on his face. He waves at her, urging her to unroll her window.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley